Monday, August 08, 2011

Muslim Women Preachers

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.

It is Ramadan, so Muslims tend to spend an inordinate amount of time watching TV, partly because they need to “kill time” waiting for sunset to break their fast, and partly because TV channels in this part of the world often present their best programming (historical series, comedy shows, and others) during the holy month. And Muslims tend to get large doses of preaching from the TV set.
I spend much less time in front of the TV set than the average person, and my viewing habits are quite different than the typical guy, but during Ramadan my TV time increases substantially. And so the other day, as I was flipping between channels, I caught one female preacher (Dr. Lina Al-Himsi on Iqra-TV), and so I recalled a news item I had read several weeks ago about a Malaysian reality-TV program which, through auditions, aims at selecting the best female Muslim preacher, or proselytizer (“da`wa” in Islamic parlance).
The recordings of this reality-TV show started a few months ago, but the program itself will not air until October 2011. The program, titled “Solehah” (from an Arabic word meaning “pious female”), has 13 episodes, through which the candidates are judged by a panel of clerics for their religious knowledge, their oratory skills and charismatic personality.

A previous show, “Imam Muda” (Young Imam), on another Malaysian channel, had been very popular among the public on the selection process for the best Imam. The show is now going into its second season.
Now, how prevalent, accepted, or shunned, are female preachers in the Muslim world? First, it must be stated, for those who may not realize this, that in mosques, ladies, however knowledgeable or scholarly they may be, are never allowed to preach to men; they can, however, conduct sessions to a female-only audience, completely segregated, out of sight and out of hearing from the male section. And except for a few cases here and there, most famously that of Dr. Amina Wadud conducting prayers to a mixed audience a few years back, Muslim women are not allowed, by the tradition, to lead the prayer when men are present or available.
But this does not apply to the TV and Radio media, where women now quite routinely appear on air and on screen and preach to whoever will listen. And a number of them have become media stars, for example: Magda Amer, who preaches in one of Cairo’s leading mosques; Soad Saleh, who is considered as one of the world’s leading female scholars of Islam and who has a TV show titled “Women’s Fatwa” on an Egyptian satellite channel; Neveen El Guindy, who has a call-in show titled “Qadaya al-Mar’ah” (Women’s Issues) on Iqra, one of the region’s top Islamic satellite channels.
Not everyone is thrilled to see female preachers on TV. A few years ago, a heated debated broke out in Saudi Arabia (as usual between traditionalists and “liberals”) about whether women should be allowed to conduct such shows on TV. The liberals were arguing that it is important to let women at home hear one of their own explain issues in ways they can relate to; some even accepted the idea that those preachers be required to wear niqab (face-veiling). The traditionalists were invoking the same argument they hold about the prohibition of women driving, namely local tradition and not letting men watch women for hours under the pretext of religious learning…
But not all female preachers are TV or Radio personalities; many work on the ground: they go out and spread the word, presumably to female audiences (in hospitals, community centers, etc.). In Egypt, crowds of women have been reported to assemble to listen to talented female preachers.
In Morocco, for example, the Ministry of Religious Affairs has been supporting a curriculum for women preachers (“murshidat”), and indeed tens of them have graduated and taken jobs in various provinces over the past several years.
Female Qur’an reciters have also become popular, and indeed in Algeria, a popular TV show has for several years now conducted a competition of Qur’anic recitation for both young men and young women, who appear on the same stage but compete within their own gender group.
As to what kind of discourse is propagated by these female preachers, there have been reports of concern by governments that these preachers do not get used to spread a jihadi ideology. Indeed, the Palestinian Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs in the West Bank warned women preachers to stay away from issues of politics and activism and to concentrate only on domestic and daily life affairs.
It would be very interesting to hear from readers of Irtiqa about female preaching practices in their parts of the world and which Muslim women preachers, scholars, or personalities they may be familiar with or have seen become famous, whether deservedly or not.


Umema said...

According to Islamic tradition, female scholars throughout history had male students although they sat in a segregated area. Ayesha r.a. taught the companions of the Prophet Muhammad SAW after his death.
For urdu language speakers, one of the best female scholars is Dr Farhat Hashmi.During this month of Ramadan, she has her own program on a local Pakistani channel.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks, Umema, for your additions, particularly the reference from Pakistan.

Now, very many times I've heard about "female scholars throughout history", but very rarely have I heard specific names and real scholarship (any book written by any of these scholars that one can consult?).

Also, Aisha is a special case that should not be used as the prime example of "Muslim female scholars". She spent a number of years with the Prophet, so of course she would have quite a bit of knowledge about what he said and did in various instances, but scholarship -- with all due respect -- is something different. Is there evidence, for example, that she went out and sought knowledge from others, in order to really sharpen her understanding and expertise? Did she teach students in the mosque? Or does the mere fact that people went to her and asked her about what the Prophet did in this or that case qualify as scholarship?
Respectfully... Nidhal

Gary said...

Salaams Nidhal for lifting the lid on a story which so often goes untold. When I became a Muslim 25 years ago I came into a culturally isolated community and because I was not from the dominant ethnic group in that community I was even more socially isolated. For a few years I was a do it yourself Muslim teaching myself what I needed to know and rarely meeting a fellow convert.

Then I saw an ad in a newsletter for a convert support group. When I followed it up it was a support group for female converts who because of the culture you described were even more isolated than me. Through them I met a number of women who were true community activists. One who first introduced scripture classes for Muslim students in secular government schools and another who established the first Islamic school in my state. She went on to found two more each time fighting legal battles against some very determined opposition.

Their marginalization by the males actually encouraged them to network with each other and make some headway on issues such as excluding women from the mosque. Through them I met their very supportive partners and found a place in a Muslim community that was outward looking and had a far-sighted vision. I also met a lot of young 2nd and 3rd generation Muslim Australians who were comfortable with their identity and in love with learning as much as I am.

So it is not all bad. All the men have to do is sit back and let the women take charge.

Regards Gary

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Salam, Gary. Many thanks for your thoughtful comment and especially for relating your personal experience.

"All the men have to do is sit back and let the women take charge."

I will more than fully agree to that.

history_lover said...

You could look up Akram Nadwi's book on Hadith scholars which was also mentioned in a number of MSM outlets.

Anonymous said...

Shaykh Akram Nadwi's groundbreaking work on female scholarship during the early period of Islam

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